Shoot branching is a primary contributor to plant architecture, evolving independently in flowering plant sporophytes and moss gametophytes. Mechanistic understanding of branching is largely limited to flowering plants such as Arabidopsis, which have a recent evolutionary origin. We show that in gametophytic shoots of Physcomitrella, lateral branches arise by re-specification of epidermal cells into branch initials. A simple model co-ordinating the activity of leafy shoot tips can account for branching patterns, and three known and ancient hormonal regulators of sporophytic branching interact to generate the branching pattern- auxin, cytokinin and strigolactone. The mode of auxin transport required in branch patterning is a key divergence point from known sporophytic pathways. Although PIN-mediated basipetal auxin transport regulates branching patterns in flowering plants, this is not so in Physcomitrella, where bi-directional transport is required to generate realistic branching patterns. Experiments with callose synthesis inhibitors suggest plasmodesmal connectivity as a potential mechanism for transport.
Most land plants have shoots that form branches and plants can regulate when and where they grow these branches to best exploit their environment. Plants with flowers and the more ancient mosses both have branching shoots, but these two groups of plants evolved to grow in this way independently of each other. Most studies on shoot branching have focused on flowering plants and so it is less clear how branching works in mosses.
Three plant hormones—called auxin, cytokinin and strigolactone—control shoot branching in flowering plants. Auxin moves down the main shoot of the plant to prevent new branches from forming. This movement is controlled by the PIN proteins and several other families of proteins. On the other hand, cytokinin promotes the growth of new branches; and strigolactone can either promote or inhibit shoot branching depending on how the auxin is travelling around the plant.
Coudert, Palubicki et al. studied shoot branching in a species of moss called Physcomitrella patens. The experiments show that cells on the outer surface of the main shoot are essentially reprogrammed to become so-called ‘branch initials’, which will then develop into new branches. Next, Coudert, Palubicki et al. made a computational model that was able to simulate the pattern of shoot branching in the moss.
Further experiments supported the predictions made by the model. Coudert, Palubicki et al. found that, as in flowering plants, auxin from the tip of the main shoot suppresses branching in the moss, and cytokinin promotes branching. The experiments also showed that strigolactone inhibits shoot branching, but its role is restricted to the base of the shoots. The model predicts that, unlike in flowering plants, auxin must flow in both directions in moss shoots to produce the observed patterns of shoot branching. Also, the experiments suggest that the PIN proteins and another group of proteins that control the movement of auxin do not regulate shoot branching in moss. Instead, it appears that auxin may move through microscopic channels that link one moss cell to the next.
Coudert, Palubicki et al.'s findings suggest that both flowering plants and mosses have evolved to use the same three hormones to control shoot branching, but that these hormones interact in different ways. One key next step will be to find out how auxin is transported during shoot branching in moss by manipulating the opening of the channels between the cells. A further challenge will be to find out the precise details of how the hormones control the activity of the branch initial cells.